Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Hosts look to rebound after last season's semi-final classic

It doesn't seem possible that it was almost one year ago already that fans were treated to one of the greatest games in the history of CIS basketball when Acadia shocked the nation, defeating the host Carleton Ravens in overtime in front of a large, boisterous crowd, many of which still talk to this day about their particular experiences during the game. As well, television ratings for that game apparently set a record for viewership of a CIS event. Somewhat lost in all the excitement was the fact that CIS basketball's 21st century dynasty, the Carleton Ravens, had their string of 5 consecutive National championships interrupted by a Villanova-like effort by the Axemen, who made every big shot, defended and rebounded as well as anyone has vs. the Ravens, got transition scores and generally answered every key Carleton run during the game.

Carleton's quest for redemption starts this Friday against what now is officially an undermanned X squad as 6'2" Tyler Richards is officially out of the tournament (how effective he would have been anyway given an injury he is nursing is another story). Friday is the Ravens first real meaningful game of the season: meaningful in that it is the first time Carleton will be facing elimination all season and especially for their three seniors: 6'7" Aaron Doornekamp, 6'2" Stuart Turnbull and 6'1" Rob Saunders, it is a chance for that recruiting class to carve out their own piece of Ravens history as the leaders of a 6th national championship. Head Coach Dave Smart also can view this season's quest for a championship with unique objectives: not only does a win bring him one championship closer to the immortal Ken Shields but a win this year would be the program's first without five-time CIS champion Osvaldo Jeanty.

The 2008-09 edition of the Ravens isn't viewed as one of the deepest of their recent rosters as Coach Smart really hasn't had a consistent rotation off the bench beyond the starting five of Doornekamp, Turnbull, Saunders, 6'8" fourth-year post Kevin McCleery and 5'10" third-year guard Mike Kenny. But the first five are as good as any in the country led by last season's Moser Award winner Doornekamp who seemed to wear down after another long summer with Canada's national men's program. Smart shut down his nephew two weeks ago for the entire week prior to and including Carleton's final regular season game at Ottawa to rest a sore foot and if Doornekamp's performance in the OUA East playoffs is any indication, the rest was perfectly timed as Aaron was the best player on the floor in the 21 point win over the Gee-Gees in the East final. Doornekamp uncharacteristically struggled somewhat with his shooting and decision-making in the post in the Wilson Cup game against Western but OUA East MVP Turnbull, the most consistent Raven all season long, picked up what little slack was there, creating for his teammates, making big shots in big spots (bringing back memories of Mike Smart in the process) and making it a sweep of the major awards (East and Wilson Cup MVP Kitch MacPherson Trophy). Turnbull has made himself into an elite player by continually evolving parts of his game during his five year career to the point now where he is maybe the best overall decision-maker in the nation. The underrated Saunders, OUA East defensive player-of-the-year, is a tremendous ball defender, makes open 3's and rebounds, especially on the offensive end which he displayed in the Wilson Cup game and against Ottawa, keeping possessions alive. After an injury-plagued season in 2007-08, McCleery is healthy agains and has reasserted himself as maybe the most fundamentally sound post player in the nation, reading in the post as well as anyone and finishing virtually everything inside of 10 feet. One of the more underrated parts of his game is his post defense - he gets it done with superior positioning and anticipation making up for a lack of true, elite athleticism. Kenny is another strong decision maker although he lacks the explosiveness to dominate off-the-dribble. Of course, Kenny is a threat to knock shots down from five feet or more beyond the arc with his quick release - Coach Smart believes he may be the best pure shooter the program has had. Usually one of the first off the bench, second year forward Cole Hobin is the most athletic Raven: he can explode to the rim off the bounce and is capable of being a shut down defender - consistency is the only thinking currently lacking in his game. 6'3" sophomore Elliot Thompson is another fundamentally sound, confident wing player who makes open 3's and is getting stronger with his decisions off the dribble each game - he can be counted on for one or two bigs shots a game. 6'5" freshman Kyle Smendziuk is a scrappy forward who will muck it up around the rim and seems to be able to find creases in the "d" inside for free looks from Doornekamp, Turnbull and others. With 8 players getting the bull of the minutes, the Ravens don't go as deep into their bench as in previous years however the first 5 are exceptional and the next 3 or 4 are very good. And the system has proven that it works: opponents know what they are getting when they meet Carleton. Every offensive possession is tough and it's usually one and done with how Carleton rebounds, transition is difficult with how well the Ravens convert. Defensively, the Ravens read as well as any team in the nation and as a group they are always ultra-prepared given the Siskel and Ebert-like attention Coach Smart pays to the tapes. For X to succeed on Friday, Coach Steve Konchalski will have to have his long-range shooters like Jeremy Dunn, T-Bear Upshaw and Blake Portis make alot of shots and his inside guys be able to rebound defensively. It will be interesting to see how quickly and how well X brings on their full-court pressure. Expect maybe the largest crowd ever at a Nationals event in the evening session as X's nation-wide alumni are as strong and as loyal as any in the country and two local teams also playing in the evening session.

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